As Global Detroit’s 10th Anniversary celebration nears, we are honored to celebrate five community leaders who reflect our commitment to building a more vibrant and inclusive Detroit and Southeast Michigan. These leaders will be honored with Inclusive Economies Awards during Tapestry, our annual celebration. This year, the event will be held as a Facebook Watch Party at 7pm on October 8. Admission is free, but we invite our supporters to purchase a $125 benefactor ticket or to make a donation of any amount. RSVP for the event here.
Ashok Seetharam, Co-Founder and COO, PAXAFE
Emerging Talent Award
Ashok Seetharam is a serial entrepreneur. Originally from south India, he came to the U.S. to obtain his master’s Degree in biomedical engineering from Brown University. Shortly thereafter, he started his first company, Orthopedix, a healthcare company which utilizes 3D printing technology to make wrist implants. After selling that organization to a larger firm, his second company, Toggle Health, developed and sold a sterile controller which could be used by surgeons in the operating room. His newest venture, PAXAFE, is an early stage startup that provides intelligent, IoT-enabled shipping insurance.
Seetharam believes immigrant inclusion provides organizations the opportunity to see an issue or project from different perspectives, creating an atmosphere for thinking outside the box. “In the startup landscape, sixty to seventy percent of all companies are immigrant founded,” he said. “Different perspectives help to spur innovative thinking.”
When asked what he is most proud of he mentions two things. “First, coming to the U.S. to attend graduate school, and second, building something from scratch and having it come to fruition, seeing people use it.”
Basil Bacall, CEO & Founder, Elite Hospitality Group
Immigrant Impact Award
Basil Bacall arrived in the U.S. in 1982 at age 17, as a refugee from Iraq, to join his brother who owned a drugstore in metro Detroit. Hungry for education, he received his GED after learning English, and ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in science from the Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, New Jersey. “The impact immigrant inclusion has on the U.S. is immense,” Basil observes. “The richness of the diversity it brings is what makes this country great.”
Prior to becoming a developer of fine hotels, at age 31 Basil was one of the youngest Chaldeans ever to work as a pilot for a major airline. He has also completed advanced theology courses with the Eastern Catholic Re-Evangelization Center, where he served on the Advisory Committee. Today his company, Elite Hospitality Group, co-owns 22 hotels and other real estate properties and employs over 1,000 people in Michigan.
In spite of his success as an entrepreneur, Basil is most proud of an organization he founded in 2007. Adopt-A-Refugee Family has helped 600,000 displaced families, mostly persecuted Christians in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. “We help them to make a new start,” he explained. Aided by his friends, this all-volunteer group ensures that one hundred percent of the money raised goes directly to the families.
Basil organization is currently looking for ways to help the people impacted by the horrific explosion in Beirut, Lebanon. They are working to help more than 700 families get urgently needed supplies and whatever else is needed to get them back on their feet.
“It’s not so much the financial success or the degrees or diplomas, but how you impact others less fortunate,” he says. “I could have easily been in their shoes.”
New Economy Initiative, represented by Pam Lewis, Director
Global Detroit Champion Award
Since 2008, the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a philanthropic-led entrepreneurial development strategy, has worked to build an inclusive network of support for entrepreneurs and small businesses in southeast Michigan. “We knew that immigrants across the country played a significant role in the country’s innovation,” says Pamela Lewis, director of NEI. “We were also aware of the impact immigrants brought to the state in terms of what was happening at universities and the impact STEM talent was having on our region.” For these reasons, NEI commissioned the original Global Detroit Study, a landmark research project that demonstrated the impact immigrants have on Southeast Michigan’s economy.
Pam says the work of NEI has continued to evolve over the years, moving away from its focus on high tech, to supporting neighborhood small business growth. NEI has continued to ensure immigrants play a meaningful role in their strategies. “Immigrants have more propensity to create their own businesses, but their access to capital and networks are limited. We need to put our foot on the gas to make sure they get what they need.”
She is most proud of the organization’s effort to create access to resources and capital for entrepreneurs – like their NEIdeas small business challenge, which was initiated in 2014. Pam says this innovative programming included working alongside partners like Global Detroit, helping to shape how they approach their work to make it more inclusive, such as converting the challenge’s application materials into five languages. “Our business competition was so successful it spawned many others that have come online, thus eliminating the need for ours,” she explains. “I am also proud of the fact that philanthropic foundations were committed enough to stay together this long,” Pam adds. “We have continued this work for twelve years.”
Lizabeth Ardisana, co-founder and CEO, ASG Renaissance
Corporate Leadership Award
“Straight economics.” This is Lizabeth Ardisana’s response when asked why immigrant inclusion is important. “They bring hard work, innovation, advanced degrees. They provide jobs, and provide the muscle that we need.” She goes on to say that we are one of the few countries that doesn’t realize that: “Canada goes out looking for and recruiting immigrants. We do the opposite.” She says it’s the variety of ethnic cultures that makes our communities so rich. She believes we don’t need to travel around the world to experience other cultures. We can meet people that enrich our lives right in our own neighborhoods.
The co-founder and CEO of ASG Renaissance, an award-winning marketing and human resource consulting and information technology services firm, Beth has immigrant heritage on both sides of her family. One set of grandparents was from Spain via Cuba. The other set came from Sweden and was looking to the U.S. to find a better life. She admires the courage it took for them to come to a new land they knew nothing about. “We benefit from the courage they showed. Most immigrants have that kind of courage. I wonder if I would have the courage to do that,” she says.
Beth says her mission in life is to give people jobs, and it’s what she is most proud of. “I provide everything from entry-level to engineering positions,” she said. “My goal is to make sure if you want a job, you can get a job. If we each did something to help someone get a job, we could accomplish something important.”
Gias Talukder, Owner, Bengal Auto Sales
Community Entrepreneur Award
Gias Talukder’s life changed when he bought a car on Craigslist that had a hole in the roof.
“In 2009, my brother asked me to get him a car, when he moved to Florida from our home in Bangladesh. I bought it on a sunny day, so I didn’t notice the hole in the roof until it rained,” he explained. But he quickly turned challenge into opportunity. Gias started buying and selling cars, which ultimately led to his move from Florida to Detroit and the opening of his car dealership, Bengal Auto Sales, in Hamtramck.
The purchase of that first car in Florida led to the purchase of a few others and that led to a few more. A car dealer in Florida saw his potential for sales and took him to a car auction. He was hooked, but soon realized the warm climate in Florida did not lend itself to a robust market for used car sales. He quickly learned colder climates with harsh winters were a much better option for success, prompting his move to Detroit. Starting slowly, and supporting himself as a Pharmaceutical tech, he decided to go where the immigrants were – Hamtramck. He opened his dealership in 2015 and has worked hard to learn the trust of the entire community. “I know used car salesmen have a bad reputation, and I’ve worked to change that.”
His business is going well because he cares about the community, organizing clothing and food runs and hosting summer BBQs. To date, Gias has donated 35 cars for raffles and festivals in the area. “This is how I have built trust within the community. Doing community service has helped me more than advertising.”
When asked what he is most proud of since coming to the U.S., he doesn’t talk about his business success. Instead he says, “My dream is to help someone in need – anyone less fortunate than I am. I try to lift them up as much as I can. It makes me feel better as a human being. I do not want anything in return.”
Gias has definitely earned the trust and respect of his community. He is the current secretary of the Bangladeshi American Business Association of Michigan, the current chair of the 13th District of the Bangladeshi American Democratic Caucus, and runs his own nonprofit organization, Feed the Hungry, to help those less fortunate. He is the CEO of the Michigan Housing Project, Inc, which buys, renovates and rents houses purchased at auction from the Detroit Land Bank.
And the mayor just hired him as PR commissioner for Hamtramck!